Guest Column

Racism needs a Madiba moment

2017-03-26 06:34
Former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. Picture: Lulama Zenzile

Former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. Picture: Lulama Zenzile

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Thuli Madonsela

Is the project of building a South Africa that belongs to all who live in it still on track? Do we have a common identity as South Africans?

If not, are we at least working towards a common identity, and what are the impediments or challenges involved?

Two related questions are: Are our political leaders guiding us on course with the project of building a united nation?

Are they influencing or inspiring us to transcend the divisions of our painful racist, sexist and bigoted past?

And, when our leaders bandy about the phrase “We need to unite”, who do they mean by “we”?

Do their pronouncements help us transcend race, class and other divisions, in accordance with the constitutional phrase, “all who live in it”, which happens to be lifted from the Freedom Charter?

All these questions became the focus of my latest spontaneous dialogue with young people about democracy.

We also discussed whether we, as South Africans, have a common national identity and value system.

My key takeaway from the dialogue was the following: If we want to breathe life into the South African dream of a unified nation, as enshrined in the Constitution, our political leaders need to transcend a “just us” paradigm in their approach to taking our country – and the world – forward.

Human Rights Day

If there was any doubt that cracks in the rainbow nation had begun to show and, indeed, widen, events on March 21 put paid to them, shattering the ideals held by many in 1994 that this country could transcend the irrationalities of racial and related divisions.

Globally observed as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, March 21 is celebrated as Human Rights Day in South Africa.

Central to both commemorations is the condemnation of the apartheid government’s brutal massacre of 69 unarmed protesters in Sharpeville on March 21 1960, and a commitment never to have a repeat of such racist-inspired human rights atrocities.

Tuesday’s holiday was tainted by an apparently racially charged incident between a white man and a black woman at a Spur restaurant in Johannesburg.

Their altercation went viral on social-media platforms, sparking outrage about residual racism.

I had hoped the outrage on Human Rights Day would bring us to what I call a “Mandela moment” from our country’s top political leaders.

I had hoped that someone would find conciliatory words, such as those spoken by then ANC president Nelson Mandela just after the brutal murder of iconic ANC leader Chris Hani in 1993.

He said: “Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being.

“A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster.

“A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin.

“Our grief and anger is tearing us apart. What has happened is a national tragedy that has touched millions of people, across the political and colour divide.”

In her book titled Confidence, Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter says these carefully chosen words were the magic that pulled the country from the brink of catastrophe. What was the magic?

Mandela, as a black liberation activist and the leader of the ANC, represented the group most affected by Hani’s death. But he spoke as a president for all South Africans, not only for his party or black people.

He chose to address black pain and anger, as well as white fear and uncertainty in that speech.

I thought this year’s Human Rights Day presented a similar opportunity for today’s national political leaders.

Did they rise to the occasion?

One leader spoke at length about the victims of apartheid and its legacy.

He apparently had no message for the apartheid beneficiary group other than quoting from an anti-apartheid icon, who called on the group to stop believing it is superior.

Another was caught up in a social-media storm over a tweet, which many slammed for implying that colonialism was not as bad as it is made out to be.

As for the nation, it flared up in anger over racism and the unfinished land restitution project.

There seems to be a belief that criminalisation is the silver bullet that will heal the divisions of the past.

It is not the view that informed the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000.

Last week’s abortive Higher Education National Convention in Midrand was meant to bring together all stakeholders to find solutions to the tertiary fees crisis, but was marred by student violence.

Yet, this disturbing turn of events seemed to pass almost unnoticed. I believe that violence is the language of the disempowered.

And issues of poverty and social injustice, which are the source of grave disenchantment among the youth, were not so much as mentioned in the president’s speech.

Was a moment lost? I believe so. Was this deliberate? I believe not.

Building a united nation

It is possible that each leader is, as the young people I spoke to intimated, caught up in a “just us” or “just me” paradigm instead of a “justice for all” outlook.

That, too, may not be intentional. It is possible that each leader is simply focusing on the disenchantment issues that dominate among their voter base.

Regardless, it must be agreed that to move forward as a country, each leader must appreciate the concerns of every South African, be they legitimate or not, and find ways to respond and bring all groups back to the centre as stakeholders engaged in the common goal of building a united nation.

What will happen if nothing changes? Peace is not simply the absence of war. As long as there is injustice somewhere, there cannot be sustainable peace anywhere.

Kanter opines that Mandela’s careful choice of words in the wake of Hani’s murder deliberately sought to strike a balance between acknowledging black outrage and grief, and white fears.

During his term as president, Madiba always tried to unite and build the nation by showing equal concern for black aspirations and white fears.

The young leaders I spoke to pointed to escalating black disappointment and anger, amid growing white fears.

They attributed this increasing racial polarisation partly to raised expectations and concomitant leadership failures regarding the management of such expectations.

Add to this the slow pace of achieving social justice and injustices such as political cronyism, corruption and related improprieties.

The young leaders also questioned whether today’s leaders were aware of the different narratives, which need to be considered when forging a common identity.

I worry that some leaders may be fanning the flames of racial hatred by presenting scapegoats for their own inadequacies when it comes to nondelivery of their constitutional promises; while other leaders are pandering to the concerns of their constituencies, without acknowledging the valid concerns of the other side.

Whether you agree or not about the need for a Mandela moment, surely you concur that we cannot continue in the same vein.

We need new terms of engagement that include all of us, based on the understanding that all lives matter in equal measure.

Advocate Madonsela is a Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow and chief patron of the Thuli Madonsela Foundation

Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  anc
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